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MPs warn of new schools time bomb

COUNCILS COULD be left paying huge debts for school buildings that lie empty or are unsuitable, MPs have warned.

The education select committee said that plans to pay for hundreds of new secondary schools using the private finance initiative carried risks.

The warning comes in a report investigating the Government's Building Schools for the Future programme, which aims to rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools in England by 2020.

Around half of the pound;45 billion project will be paid for using PFI, where local authorities lease new school buildings from private companies. Authorities enter into long contracts, which can prove expensive if schools need to be closed because of falling pupil numbers, the MPs said.

BSF, which was launched in 2004, has attracted criticism for falling behind schedule.

Under the original timetable, 100 schools were to be built by the end of this year. In fact, one school, Bristol Brunel academy, will open in September.

However, MPs said the delays were not significant as long as the time was used to build high-quality schools.

"This project is hugely ambitious in its scope," said Barry Sheerman, the select committee chairman.

"We welcome that ambition, but the question of whether BSF is the best way to spend pound;45 billion on education must be kept under regular review."

Ty Goddard, director of the British Council for School Environments, said: "There is no national approach, which means councils have to keep reinventing the wheel.

"We need a national databank of good practice and an evaluation programme that allows us to learn what works."

Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnerships for Schools, the body responsible for delivering BSF, said that councils have to give clear projections of their pupil numbers for 10 years when they are bidding for funding.

The report said that teachers and pupils should be more involved in the design process and on extra focus given to the environmental impact of new schools.

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